A Crowdsourcing Lesson from 18 Days in Egypt

18 Days in Egypt is “a collaborative documentary project about the revolution.” The co-founder of this project, Jigar Mehta, was in Copenhagen June 14th, and I was one of a handful of people who was privileged to hear him speak at Politiken’s Hus.

Jigar Mehta in front of a slide with the name of the project in English and in Arabic.

I was sad that so few attended this talk. He did tell his tale to a much larger audience the next day at another conference, but he had a valuable tale that deserved more listeners of the journalist variety. (News of this talk was circulated in journalist circles.) Here are my brief notes from his lessons learned about crowdsourcing “an interactive documentary of the events in Egypt” that occurred from January 25th to February 11th 2011.

My notes from the talk

Mehta describes how he watched the tale unfold on television. He noticed that many, many people were holding up their mobile phones to record the events. He thought that must be a rich source of material that could reveal many stories from those turbulent days.

Inspiration came from the Hypercities project at UCLA.

You have loads of content from all those who recorded what happened. How do you add context to that? Deep meta tagging is required.

You need to go to the streets to find the stories. In Egypt, only 25% have internet access and the internet quality is often poor. How can people who have content share it in those conditions? What about people who have tales and no devices for sharing?

The team behind 18 Days is teaching journalism to 30 students. Those people, in turn, can help collect the stories. They will learn how to approach people and how to encourage them to share their stories. They will make “pop-up shops” on Tahrir Square and elsewhere. People cannot afford the price of sending text messages (SMS). These pop-up shops are places people can stop by and tell their stories. The plan is to use raw material – nothing prepared. It’ll be all about the tagging. When you get context-rich material, the media will tell the story. The aim is also to highlight differences at various spots.

The goal is 5000 unique stories. Of course, the overall goal is to share this with the Egyptian people. Some people who were hesitant about sharing their experiences became eager when they realized that this could be a legacy to future generations – that they could one day tell their own grandchild “this is what I did during these important days in Egypt’s history”.

On the technology side, they are using Popcorn from Mozilla. Most of their software is open source, but they may have to build some parts themselves.

In the following picture, Mehta is talking about the site “I am Jan 25” that is being displayed in the slide on the screen behind him. It is another example of aggregating information in one place.

Jigar Mehta standing in front of one of the slides in his presentation.

My thoughts from the talk

I was very excited by the way they planned to engage people in this project. Those journalist-trained students will have to tell tales to get tales.

The entire process of collecting content and tagging it properly is a tale unto its own. I noted that they were creating a process that tells story and gives the whole thing a life of its own. “18 Days in Egypt” is the main tale, but a secondary tale is emerging from the entire process of making that main tale.

I picked up some new (to me) terms in this talk: transmedia and cross-media. (PS I also found an article that debunks some myths about transmedia that is worth a read.)

The stories from 18 days in Egypt are very important to tell the world. From a professional viewpoint, I think the process of producing this documentary is tremendously exciting. Anyone in journalism or communication or video/film production can learn a lot from the processes that are coming out of this project. I hope they document that as well.

A close-up photo of Jigar Mehta listening with a shy smile to the introduction about his presentation.

Conference Conversation Curation Frustration

How do you attend a conference from your desk and gain wisdom and insights?

Last year, I would have answered ScribbleLive. I followed the STC Summit 2010 using ScribbleLive, and I had a feeling I was at least having the conversations in the hallways. Tweets were drawn into the ScribbleLive setup, but people could also have accounts where they wrote more than 140 characters at a time. You got substantial tidbits directly from the event. I had a sense of the problems on the first two days of the conference (too much organizational navel-gazing that drove people batty), and the overall success of the conference when it was just about technical communication and its myriad of topics.

I felt like I attended the conference in person.

Real-Time is Exhausting

The STC Summit 2011 was far less enjoyable from my faraway perspective.

One problem was the distance. From Denmark, the Sacramento, California location was 9 hours away. They got going when I was heading home from work. I tried following the tweets all evening, but I needed to get dinner and I had other things to do (my so-called life). I’d come home and turn on the computer, but after making and eating dinner and doing non-Twitter-computer tasks, I was often too tired to bother checking up on any #stc11 tweets.

There was no ScribbleLive for easy viewing. The organizers tried a social networking tool called Zerista, which was used mainly as a calendar and coordinator for meetings. It was a walled garden given only to attendees, so if anyone did use it for chatting or sharing, outsiders like myself were excluded.

There was a CoverItLive widget on the Summit website. That showed tweets with the #stc11 hashtag as they rolled in. I didn’t use it because Twitter search was just as good for me, if not better for my nearsighted eyes. As of this writing, the widget is still active on the page, but I have no idea if a CoverItLive user can also grab a file of those tweets. Few seemed to know about using Lanyrd.

I suddenly found myself working too hard to follow events 9 hours away from me. I think I hit a mental timezone limit. What I did when the conference was in Dallas (only 7 hours away) was uncomfortable with a 9-hour difference.

How to Grab and Archive Tweets

I don’t have the perfect answer to this, but there are some methods – as long as the applications pulling the tweets don’t shut down or drastically change their business model, as WTHashtag.com did.

  • If you use Google Reader, you can grab the RSS feed for a particular hashtag. You must do so before the event starts or else you miss tweets. After the event, it is too late.
  • Search Hash can grab tweets and let you download a .csv file for offline viewing. This is how I collected tweets from the 2011 STC Summit. I collected them while the conference was on. When I try collecting them now, the results are incomplete. Perhaps they struggle with the “disappearing” of tweets at Twitter, too.
  • I tried using The Archivist for Summit tweets. However… Over 5000 tweets were collected, but I cannot see them all and I cannot download them. Twitter’s Terms of Service do not permit this. (Commence wailing and gnashing of teeth.) Oh, and I’m irked the search is named for me and not the hashtag. Not sure how that happened, and I can’t change it.

What’s in These Tweets?

Do I really want to read all tweets? No. Some will be people tweeting about a lost item, where to meet for a shuttle bus, or the joy of meeting a virtual friend in real life. They are OK because they add color and life to the event. When there are hundreds or thousands of tweets, I need those types of tweets filtered out somehow.

This is where curation comes in. A tweet from @wion and supported by @annindk says it all: “I’m less concerned with live tweeting and more interested in the thoughtful write-ups during/after”. @Wion addressed his tweet to people attending the Content Strategy Conference in Minneapolis, which used the hashtag #confab. His comment applies to any conference.

@fionacullinan tried her hand with Storify where she curated tweets about Confab for FireheadLtd. Storify looks interesting as does a similar curation tool called Chirpstory.

But… maybe we should just go back to blogging after the event – or during, if we have the time, energy, and internet connectivity.

Some people are investigating and pondering this capturing events for posterity and for pondering. @annindk, a.k.a. Ann Priestly, shares her explorations and excellent insights on this very topic at Danegeld. Through one of her posts, I found two must-read articles on this very topic:

Ann led me to Real-Time is Burying History on the Web by Stephanie Booth.

And Stephanie’s article led me to Sacrificing web history on the altar of instant by Suw Charman-Anderson (yes, the @FindingAda Suw!)

Real-Time or History?

You think these posts talk less about the real-time experience and more about the history? Of course. Shouldn’t that be the aim of these conferences? Sure, you have some beers, you meet people, you laugh, you talk. In short, you get re-energized for whatever it is you do. However, isn’t learning or teaching an ideal goal for a conference? That means you need to collect this wisdom somehow. Some sort of curation is needed.

Why don’t we attend more conferences and stop whining about curation? They cost money and time, and not everyone has big (filled) pockets or a sponsorship at their back. Again, if goals are teaching and learning, then the conference should extend beyond the days at the physical conference site. STC has provided Summit@aClick for the past few years. (Free for attendees or at a fee for non-attendees.) This is a collection of most presentations where the audio is synchronized with the slides. Unfortunately, it is not captioned and there is no transcript, which is a huge drawback. It excludes anyone with hearing issues and those who have English as a second language and who like the support of captions or transcripts.

What Now?

There are automatic curating or collecting tools, but the best curation tool is inside the head of each conference attendee. More of them should expand beyond 140 characters when they get home. Two sources of inspiration are

Now… What conversations do you need to expand?

Global Voices, Global Accessibility, Globa11y!

I’d like to have the real voices of accessibility reverberate around the globe!

Back in March, I heard Mahmoud Salem, better known as @SandMonkey, speak about using social media in the revolution in Egypt. He gave a fascinating presentation, which was followed by a question and answer session. The person who asked questions was Solana Larsen, a managing editor at Global Voices.

Donate to Global Voices - Help us spread the word

I have a lot of respect for Global Voices and the citizen media movement providing a platform for voices around the world. These are voices that you normally do not hear in mainstream media for so many different reasons. I chatted with @SandMonkey and a group of my friends after the talk. Solana was there, and I said hi, because I follow her on Twitter. We started talking about Global Voices.

Solana asked whether I would be interested in writing for them. I was reluctant because I honestly didn’t know what to write and because I have been saying yes to too much lately! If I wrote about something, it would most likely be accessibility.

Then I had an epiphany.

Why not encourage people with disabilities from around the world to join Global Voices? They could tell their story and raise awareness about disability issues and the efforts to make changes for improvement in their country.

The Real Voices of Accessibility

It’s been said before (in casual tweets and on blogs) that many accessibility advocates are people who do not have major mobility, vision, hearing, or cognition disabilities. It’s implied that although they care deeply, they are not directly affected by inaccessible websites, buildings, gatherings, etc. There are people with disabilities who are active bloggers and presenters at conferences, and there are some who blog quietly in one corner of cyberspace.

Why not find more? Why not find people with disabilities – those who are not directly involved with web development and design and all the web accessibility discussions – and get them to blog about what is happening in their countries? What are their governments doing to be more inclusive of all its citizens? What legislation is being debated or passed? What grassroots initiatives are thriving and what seeds have been planted?

Global Voices has sections dedicated to geographic areas and topics of interest. Accessibility is a topic of interest. More blog posts on this topic would be joyfully welcomed by the editing team. The real voices of accessibility deserve to be heard by a larger audience.

Tell Your Story and Make a Difference

This is a shout out to people with disabilities everywhere. You in the wheelchair. You with the chronic pain. You with the signing hands. You with little or no sight. And you and you and you. You have voices, regardless of the state of your vocal chords. You who know the value of accessibility and the value of inclusion. Your voices are the really important ones.

Global Voices is a vehicle ready to drive your message to every home. There is strength in numbers. This is not a job for one person, but a job for many.

Let’s start discussing it in the comments or on Twitter, but if you are ready now, go talk to Solana and the people at Global Voices. Learn about the specific details for blogging, especially those of you who already have an active blog.

@SandMonkey talked about using social media in a revolution where people wanted to make improvements in their lives. I’ve read Oliver Sacks’ Seeing Voices and the part where he describes the strike at Gaulladet University and the rise of Deaf culture. Recently, many people with disabilities took to the street in London in the Hardest Hit march to protest the cuts in disability spending by the UK government.

Maybe it’s about time to take to the (virtual) streets and explain the importance of inclusion and rights for persons with disabilities. After hearing about the Hardest Hit campaign in London, I speculated what it would be like if there was a Million People with Disabilities March in Washington, D.C. (like other Million Something marches in the past).

The chat with Solana and my great respect for Global Voices ignited an idea in my head. Someone else fanned the flames. I want to credit @nethermind with something she said on Twitter. I believe she was making a direct or even an indirect call for action on spreading the word about accessibility. Anyway, the two ideas made me think that Global Voices would be a great channel for that call to action.


Let’s do this. Accessibility is an issue that is not confined to one country or to one language. This leads me to the odd word in my title. I have a great hashtag for this project.


This is the word “global” plus the special abbreviation for accessibility called “a11y”. The “11” stands for the eleven letters of the word “accessibility” found between the “a” and the “y”. (This technique has been used for the words “localization”, which is “l10n”, and “internationalization”, which is “i18n”, so it’s not a new idea.) Merge Global and a11y and you get globa11y.

As an aside, I believe the word “inclusion” is better than accessibility in many ways. I think some people are put off by the term accessibility, or they simply do not understand how it can relate to them. Inclusion may be far better. However, both terms are not recognized that easily outside the group of people who work with or are interested in the topic of accessibility. Hashtags do tend to defy grammar and syntax, and the word accessibility lent itself more easily to a marriage with the word global.

Whatever we call it, let’s give it a go and start a movement!